For months now, those of us who are fans of the Black Panther have been lamenting this teaser image of what they're calling the American Panther. Many of us had already been concerned that Black Panther: Man Without Fear was a needless way to Americanize the former king of Wakanda by stripping away his unique circumstances and forcing him into the Daredevil mold, and now a star-spangled Evel Knievel look? T'Challa may be without fear in this book, but his followers certainly were afraid that David Liss might be making every mistake a new Black Panther writer could possibly make, including making him into… well, what you see above.
With a massive collective sigh of relief, we now know that this American Panther is not, in fact, T'Challa, and that alone can let us clear our heads and take a look at where Liss is going here and give it a fair shake. We do not learn who, exactly, this American Panther actually is during the course of Black Panther: Man Without Fear #521, but we know he is a large, looming racist causing all sorts of trouble for Mr. Okonkwo, T'Challa's civilian identity in his quest to take Daredevil's place as protector of Hell's Kitchen. He is a stooge of the brand new Hate-Monger.
One of the historical pitfalls of any comic series with a black lead character is the fact that they are often pitted against overt super-racists in a clumsy fashion, and the introduction of the Hate-Monger threatens to be another one of those heavy-handed missteps. Not only does he dress like a magical super-Klansman, but he was originally a clone of Adolf Hitler himself who could transfer his consciousness into new bodies. Here, he's a purple glowing spirit form in outer space that is actually hitching a ride on one of the incoming Serpent hammers to return to Earth and possess one of his admirers who has been invoking his name.
There's definitely a ridiculous aspect to all of this, but in a way, it makes sense, because racism is absolutely ridiculous. It's also a fairly unique way to tie in to Fear Itself, harping on the 'phobia' part of xenophobia, which is the tack Liss takes here. The first half of the book is a profile of Josh Glenn, a guy who is crap at his job and hates his Indian boss and immigrants polluting American purity, becoming fascinated with an internet subculture that praises the Hate-Monger like an icon, gets fired for celebrating Independence Day by dressing as the Hate-Monger at work, gets kicked out by his wife for becoming obsessed with blog-ranting about immigrants, street-corner preaches about "a foreigner in the White House" and gets caught by the Black Panther trying to break into a pawn shop to get weapons so he'll be taken seriously. Sitting homeless on the street with a sign that says "Immigrants Stole My Job And My Wife" is when the Hate-Monger spirit finds him, possesses him and grants him the power to bring others into his thrall – exactly what any racist mouthpiece needs and generally fails at accomplishing beyond a cult status.
Meanwhile, T'Challa – or Mr. Okonkwo – has turned his diner into a refugee camp for people seeking shelter from the Giant Hammer People, while he's running around in the Panther outfit trying to stop looters and jerks preying on people in the midst of the chaos. Glenn catches wind of this and begins manipulating people into harassing his shelter as an eyesore, which quickly escalates into tearing into T'Challa's established cover identity mysteriously receiving funds from Wakanda to rebuild the diner he's running. Homeland Security even gets involved by outright arresting T'Challa, and bringing in Foggy Nelson for fudging some paperwork to set up that cover ID in the first place.
One thing I can say for this is that it's certainly different. The stale New York vigilante mold feel I've been complaining about isn't really there in the midst of all this weirdness, save for Francesco Francavilla's moody art style which so readily brings to mind Batman and/or 1970s crime movies. This gritty look doesn't mesh too well with the more outlandish aspects of comics being employed here. He does seem to have a bit of difficulty rendering actual action, not that there's too much of it in this issue. He's good at implying action by showing us the moments just before and after it, but somehow when T'Challa actually throws a punch at the American Panther, it seems a little incongruous with how Francavilla usually works. Art is pretty damn subjective, though, and anything I note about artwork is usually just my personal response and hardly a judgment on the overall quality.
There's just a bit too much of that ridiculousness going on here for Liss to get over, at least in this one issue. It's an admirable attempt to make a goofy supervillain throwback into a credible, relevant threat, as well as an effort to do something to tie into Giant Hammer Guys besides just reacting to Giant Hammer Guys, but the fact remains that when there are Giant Hammer Guys destroying your city, that's pretty much all you're going to be doing. Nobody at any New York newspaper is going to devote a cover story to smearing the Panther's efforts when there are Giant Hammer Guys giant-hammering everything in sight. The immediacy of that threat isn't felt here at all. Apparently, Glenn has time to research Okonkwo thoroughly enough to find ways to discredit him, find the old owner of the diner, contact Homeland Security and actually get them to give a damn about some restaurant owner in Hell's Kitchen, as if they wouldn't be completely swamped by "HOLY SHIT GIANT HAMMER GUYS" calls. Every other Fear Itself book is treating this as the end of days, but here in Clinton, it seems to be more along the lines of a heavy sigh and a 'here we go again.'
Of course, maybe that's how powerful the Hate-Monger's manipulation of dark emotions truly is – he did get zapped by a Cosmic Cube for a while back in the day, apparently. Is he Hitler's super-powered spirit? There's a line dropped about getting masses to obey that could imply that, yes. Can Hitler's clone's super-powered outer space ghost with a purple Klan hood be used as a vessel to make some serious statements about America's attitudes towards immigration? That remains to be seen. But Black Panther: Man Without Fear #521 gets a grape scratch-n-sniff sticker this week just for finally revealing that they're not dressing the rightful king of Wakanda in that obnoxious get-up.
You guys couldn't have told us that earlier and spared us all the angry twitching? Ah, well, all is forgiven, now that you've given us legitimate in-story cause to hate the American Panther, and even given us T'Challa pointing at that costume and saying "That was a mistake." We now know that Liss seems to get it. Here's hoping he's got something a little more nuanced to do with it now that he's got it.
CRAVE ONLINE RATING: 7/10